6 Chicago tech companies changing the world for the better

by Sam Dewey
December 17, 2015

‘Tis the season to give back to the community, but for some professional givers, it’s just another day at work.

At its core, technological innovation has the power to steer us into a more hopeful, healthy, compassionate, and democratic future. No one knows that better than some of Chicago’s finest tech startups, whose teams work each and every day to change the world for the better. Here are six whose mighty missions we’re celebrating this year.

The mission: Founded in 2011, Gesture’s goal is simple: help charities and organizations raise more money by ushering the silent auction experience into the digital age. Donors can bid on items any time during an event — even if they’re not physically present — which streamlines the bidding process and leads to more fruitful fundraising.

Their impact so far: Gesture’s technology has already been used at more than 3,000 events nationally, helping almost one million donors raise a whopping $225 million for charitable foundations.

What they’ve got in store for 2016: As the year turns to a close, the team at Gesture is prepping for a big 2016. Besides continuing to expand in terms of both product and market, they’re also aiming to raise another $150 million for their charity partners in the new year.

“We raised $100 million with our charity partners this year and look at that as only a stepping stone for the incredible impact that can be made,” said Brandon Stec, marketing manager at Gesture. “All organizations should be looking for different ways they can help and this time of year especially. We believe in continuing to make hope happen every day and live that in our business as well as our personal lives.”


The mission: Zero Percent’s multi-modal mobile platform helps connect restaurants and grocery stores with local nonprofits so that fresh, nutritious, and excess food stays out of the dumpster and on the plates of those in need, regardless of location or socio-economic status.  

Their impact so far: Zero Percent has already partnered with more than 70 nonprofits and projects that they will have rescued their 1,000,000th pound of food this holiday season. And they’ve just launched Operation Food Rescue through the foodrescue.io platform in a move to help offset the cost of food transportation costs — an expense many nonprofits simply can’t afford. Operation Food Rescue empowers anyone on the Internet to donate money in order to help move meals in the city, providing a crowdfunded and community-drive solution to help fight hunger.

What they’ve got in store for 2016: Besides championing the launch of foodrescue.io, Zero Percent’s New Year’s resolutions include rescuing another 1,000,000 pounds of food, growing the number of their nonprofit partners to 200, and expanding to communities outside of Chicago, like Nashville, Minneapolis, and Cincinnati.

“If we can solve the logistics for re-distributing this food in a reliable and safe way, we can not only end hunger, but also malnutrition,” said Rajesh Karmani, Zero Percent’s founder. “As a result, we can change health (obesity, diabetes) and economic (dignity, productivity at school and work) outcomes for our neighbors in need.”

The mission: mRelief’s mission is to help low income families better discover public assistance programs they might qualify for and streamline the actual social service delivery for program providers. Through questionnaires available both online and via SMS, mRelief acts as a check to many of the barriers that prevent families from seeking and receiving public assistance, like lengthy waiting periods and vague eligibility requirements.

Their impact so far: mRelief has already developed 13 eligibility screeners and an All City Programs Screener — each of which was built by mRelief CTO and co-founder Genevieve Nielsen by hand. They’ve processed about 26,000 text messages, and through a partnership with the City of Chicago, they created an Early Learning Finder to help families in Chicago access child care services — reducing eligibility determination time by 75 percent.

What they’ve got in store for 2016: Like many of their Chicago tech neighbors, mRelief is looking to scale. They’ve developed a tool so that any of the 52,000-plus social services organizations and 3,400 city governments they’ve identified nationwide can have a tool to easily customize their own eligibility screeners without any computer programming prerequisites.

“Our vision is to ensure that any American can access the safety net without it adding to the already stressful circumstance of poverty,” Nielsen said (pictured right with co-founder Rose Afriyie). “Our platform facilitates discovery of programs and fosters economic relief for people in need.”


The mission: Public Good empowers everyday people to discover and support nonprofits that fight for the causes they believe in most, from human rights and education to climate change and violence reduction. Their online network also helps organizations better leverage online fundraising.

Their impact so far: In their very first year, Public Good already managed to pull in more than $1 million for almost 1,000 participating nonprofits — and that’s in the Chicagoland area alone.

What they’ve got in store for 2016: Next year, you might start seeing Public Good’s “Take Action” button pop up on major media sites in response to the today's major social issues. For instance, if you read a breaking news story about a devastating tornado, Public Good’s button will appear next to the article, encouraging you to connect and contribute to a nonprofit that can help.

“There are millions of people who are hearing about these problems and want to help but don’t know how,” said Public Good’s co-founder/Executive Chairman, Dan Ratner. “We believe that there is enough grassroots support for these organizations to take up the slack, but someone needs to help people connect the dots between issues, the organizations working on them, and how to help. That someone is Public Good.”


The mission: GiveForward is growing into the first place many people turn when they want to help a loved one in need. The company powers an online crowdsourcing community where people can organize support — from raising money and sending messages to organizing meal delivery — for friends and family facing all of life’s vicissitudes.

Their impact so far: Since 2008, GiveForward has helped people raise more than $180 million, with more than 20,000 Thinking of You messages sent and almost 300 meals given.

What they’ve got in store for 2016: Just a few months after launching a suite of product additions to their platform, GiveForward is already diving into a number of new ways to provide tangible support to members of the community, including new partnerships and features.

“There are many roles that technology plays to encourage and empower people to give back; but I believe the most important is the ability to make an immediate and direct impact,” said GiveForwad CEO Josh Chapman (pictured left). “Whether it is emotional or financial support that a donor gives to a recipient, the fact that it can happen instantly and go directly to the person who needs help is game changing.”


The mission: There are more than 2 million people in the United States who are currently incarcerated — with 11 more cycling through local jail systems each year. Despite those staggering numbers (and the fact that studies show access to educational programs while incarcerated reduces the rate of recidivism), most individuals never receive any form of high-quality programming. That’s where Edovo comes in. With their tablet technology, correctional facilities across the nation can provide personalized and incentive-based learning, with academic, vocational, and therapeutic content designed to prepare individuals for a positive engagement in the community upon their release.

Their impact so far: Formerly known as Jail Education Solutions, Edovo launched in just 2013 but is already available across the nation. Over the course of 2015, Edovo said about 80 percent of their users used their platform on at least a weekly basis.

What they’ve got in store for 2016: They’re in the process of expanding into more correctional facilities across the US and are currently working on developing new educational content based on user feedback.

“Technology can be, and has been, a huge agent of change and progress particularly in the education realm,” said Chenault Taylor, Public Relations Director at Edovo. “Some of the advancements we’ve seen technology bring to bear in the past few decades have unquestionably changed lives for the better. The power of tech also means that the tech community needs to be mindful of the impact that products and innovation can have. We see a number of social enterprises rooted in using technology for good, and our hope at Edovo is that that number continues to rise.”

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